From Riches to Rags and Back: The Life, Service, and Redemption of the Flodden Duke.
Thomas Howard was born in 1443, 12 years before the beginning of the Wars of the Roses. The eldest son of John Howard, the 1st Duke of Norfolk, he was destined for a noble life. By 1485, Thomas’ father was one of Richard III’s closest allies and one of the most influential landowners in the country. The year later, he was dead, his son Thomas attainted and politically ruined. By the time of Thomas’ death in 1524, however, he was a loyal supporter of the Tudor cause, a man of great influence and prestige, and had redeemed a noble family which would remain prominent for hundreds of years. This is a story of political cunning, military leadership, and the trick to getting on the good side of a Tudor King.
Howard was no stranger to the machinations of the royal court. He’d been a loyal, yet fairly uninfluential, supporter of Edward IV and had fought at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, sustaining major injuries but avoiding death — a fate which the opposing Earl of Warwick and his younger brother, the Marquess of Montagu, were not so lucky in evading. This battle, which ended in the Yorkists’ favour, helped cement the second reign of Edward IV and Howard was made an esquire of the body, a high-profile position which allowed him to maintain a close relationship with the King. He was knighted five years later.
Howard also kept a close, and useful, relationship with Richard III and was made Earl of Surrey in 1483 along with the appointment of his father to the position of the Duke of Norfolk. Although not present at the battle, the suppression of Buckingham’s Rebellion in October of 1483 was crucial. With Buckingham dead and no successor yet in place, Howard’s father — being the Duke of Norfolk — was now the most powerful noble in the country. With his father now one of the most powerful men in the country, Thomas Howard’s future now looked brighter than ever.
Tragedy struck in 1485. In August, Henry Tudor landed in Wales and John Howard wrote to John Paston that ‘the king’s enemies be a-land’. It was on the 22nd of August, 1485, that Thomas Howard’s fall from grace began. Howard had been in charge of one of the contingents of Richard III’s army, facing off against the Earl of Oxford who used arrows to quickly gain an advantage over the Duke. They also proved better at close-range, hand-to-hand combat and Norfolk soon found himself in need of support. Northumberland’s men did not aid the troubled Duke who was later killed.
The tragedy was two-fold. Howard, who survived the fighting, had lost his father but also his position. In Henry VII’s first parliament he, along with a variety of other men (including Francis Lovell, Richard Charleton, William Barkley, and John Kendal), was attainted. His attainder was also two-fold, as he was actively attainted by the parliament but would have lost his fortune nonetheless, due to Henry VII’s use of blood corruption (which meant that he was attained by virtue of being his father’s son).
Following the disastrous battle, Howard was left landless and imprisoned in the Tower of London for three years. During Lambert Simnel’s rebellion (masterminded by the Earl of Lincoln, John de la Pole), Howard was given an opportunity to escape but refused. In 1489, due to his apparent loyalty and lack of threat, Howard was again made the Earl of Surrey. Howard, now a noble but nonetheless in possession of little land, had to prove his loyalty to the King who had killed his father if he wanted to return to prominence. His first opportunity came in 1489 when rebels rose up in Yorkshire — resisting the tax required for the war against Brittany — and killed the Duke of Northumberland, Henry Percy. Leading 8,000 troops, the rebel force dissolved in the face of Howard’s army and the rebellion easily put down. Surrey was subsequently made Henry VII’s lieutenant in the north.
Howard’s journey only got better from there. He had proved a loyal and able subject, something which Henry VII valued highly, and was made a member of the Privy Council in 1501. Especially in recent historical studies of Henry VII, historians such as John Guy and Steven Gunn have placed a particular emphasis on Henry’s use of ‘New Men’ (men of lower origin) and of his implementation of meritocracy which saw the old aristocracy become a ‘mere ornament’ by the end of Henry VII’s reign, according to Wilhelm Busch. Howard, however, is a slight exception in this regard, breaking three of these rules. Howard was of a noble background and one which had a long history of service to the English monarchs. However, Howard’s rise to prominence and the subsequent rise in influence of the Howard family — particularly under his son, Thomas — stands as a testament to how valued his service was by Henry. Other prominent noble families, such as the Neville and Percy families, remained somewhat powerful but came nowhere near the levels of Howard’s influence.
Following Henry VII’s death in 1509, and the accession of his son, Howard was unable to contend with Wolsey for the position of the new King’s first minister. Howard was also left disappointed when he was not sent to France in 1513 to fight in the Anglo-French war ongoing at the time. However, while the Battle of the Spurs is often touted as Henry VIII’s key military success that year, a similarly fruitful battle was fought on English soil, near Braxton. The Battle of Flodden was fought on the 9th of September and had the potential to be devastating. Staying true to the Auld Alliance (est. 1295), Scotland had invaded northern England and were edging towards Braxton, Northumberland. With Henry VIII in France and unable to command the English forces, Howard was put in charge. This truly was to be the greatest test of his military career. No longer was he battling against peasant rebels whom he greatly outnumbered. He was face-to-face with the King of Scotland, James IV, and an English defeat could have devastating repercussions.
Outnumbered by at least 5,000 men, the battle was nonetheless won by the English. This was largely down to the dominance of the English bill over the Scottish pike, which was not effective in the hilly terrain and slippery ground. The English also used cannons much more efficiently and the battle was won with the English taken far fewer casualties than the Scottish who may have lost upwards of 10,000 men and — much more importantly — James IV was slain. Howard, thankful for the service of his men, knighted roughly 45 of his English soldiers, including his son, Edmund Howard.
However, the real reward was to be Howard’s himself. In 1514, the year after Flodden and the same year that England exited the Anglo-French War of 1512–14, Howard was made Duke of Norfolk and his son was made Earl of Surrey. Thus, the Howard family had returned to its prior glory and after nearly 30 years Thomas had regained what was rightfully his.
Howard died on the 21st of May, 1524, two years after retiring from public life. His eldest son, Thomas, became the 3rd Duke of Norfolk — influential throughout Henry VIII’s reign — and two of his grandchildren would go on to become Queen of England (Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard; both executed).
Thomas Howard’s story is one which exhibits the key to success in the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII: Loyalty. After all, it had ultimately been Howard’s decisive leadership at Flodden and the resulting death of 15 lords, 12 earls, many clan chiefs, an archbishop, and above all King James IV himself which had allowed him to become the Duke of Norfolk and gain the nickname which links his power to his service: The Flodden Duke.